Sherlock Holmes: the Man Behind the Marvel
In the spring of 2010, queues snaked round the block and back again, people of all ages, races, and classes standing for hours, for weeks, for one reason: the PAINTINGS II exhibition of oil artist phenomenon Sherlock Holmes. I myself queued no less than three times for the chance to spend a few hours gaping along with the masses at Holmes’ fourteen pieces, oil paintings so lifelike (“I swear I saw the one of Her Majesty breathe,” exclaims one fan), so full of “intended vitality” as Holmes himself put it in an previous interview, that one feels as though one is not only in the actual presence of whomever Holmes has meticulously painted, but that one is also in the presence of “a skill-level not seen,” expounds Irene Adler (the curator for Holmes’ newest show at the National Portrait Gallery), “since the age of [Thomas] Lawrence (1769-1830) or perhaps even a Renaissance talent as towering as Velázquez (1599-1660) with attention to subtlety and detail to rival even da Vinci. He is the da Vinci for the modern age. Without question. Or exception.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Holmes states without a hint of irony when read the previous quote, “I have no interest in sculpting horses or using bronze, for that matter.” With his trademark inkblot waves and cerulean eyes, to be sat across from Holmes feels markedly similar to being sat across from one of his pieces. Or perhaps one’s upper-crust, extremely distant but very meticulous probation officer. Holmes speaks only when spoken to, usually accenting a full-stop by tapping an unfiltered cigarette of his personal blend into an impressively normal ashtray astride an immaculately-suited knee. He wears no visible jewellery, statement-making footwear (plain black Yves St Laurent’s) or even contact lenses. In an era where artists in jeans covered with scarves and competing tattoos with unwashed hair and the lingering scent of cannabis are the ordre du jour, Holmes cuts a stark and stunning contrast.
Famous for spending only scarce periods of time with his clients and subjects (as “not all clients become subjects and not all subjects are necessarily clients”), Holmes doesn’t waste a moment, sometimes only meeting with a person once for no more than five minutes. “I paint only what I observe.” When pressed on the seeming impossibility of creating such complete pieces with only moments of time with each subject, Holmes suggests “perhaps it is impossible for some idiotic, inattentive someone who is not me. However, I am me and therefore your point is baseless.” He does not care to comment on his competition (the block-busting launch of James Moriarty’s Tasteless at the Tate Modern, for example) or on the incident in 2008 when rumours of cocaine reached a fever pitch following his abysmal showing at the Serpentine Gallery where Holmes has only recently been welcomed back.
Holmes’ new show, the simply titled PAINTINGS III, opens 1 September at the National Portrait Gallery (020 7306 0055 to book).
K. Reilly, The Guardian
“Never again means never again,” Sherlock growls at himself in the mirror over the sink. His curls are insane in the humidity while his fingers work turpentine from the bristles of each brush in short, practised moves until the white sable hair is dry again. “Do you hear me? Never. Again. No matter what they promise you.”
He can still hear the laughter from the canvas behind him (or the pieces of it that are left anyway) and it makes his skin crawl as the shame starts to congeal just below the surface. A show in September. Who is he fucking kidding?
He has painted everyone, everyone of interest and if someone is actually interesting, they’re already dead. And that never works, working from old photographs. They all end up awkward amalgamations with the right eyes but entirely wrong nose and the right wrists with the completely wrong fingers. Or worse, his fingers…when he can be bothered to show up to model, the self-important fuck.
There is nothing left for him here. Nothing in the whole of London or England or the world. And especially nothing at all with which to facilitate an entire show. In September. At the Portrait Gallery.
Sherlock makes his way to the couch and lies on his back tenting his fingers under his nose. He closes his eyes. This is what it must feel like: being normal. So empty and restrictive and so very, very hateful. Diving deep into himself, Sherlock battens down the hatches on the inner-most chambers. The despair looms, insidious and insatiable. “The east wind is coming, Sherlock,” he hears as if Mycroft was hissing it into his ear right now. “It’s coming to get you!”
Before the darkness can pounce, the phone on his chest vibrates with a new email. He opens his eyes and thumbs it unlocked. “Dear Mister Sherlock Holmes,” he reads in a fast mumble. “My name is Harriet Watson and I request a meeting with you at a time of your choosing to discuss an unusual commission…”
His cavernous voice fills the unexpectedly haphazard sitting room perfectly. Objective: intimately intimidate. It’s so small, this simple place; its knick-knacks and wallpaper had entertained people (and bank accounts) that she could never dream of let alone know and the furniture doesn’t even match. And where are the oils? Not one painting hanging, but there’s a bovine skull complete with headphones.
As for the man himself, he’s close to the small picture in the magazine, but he’s taller than she had imagined him with narrower hips and a short torso that bends almost concave when he takes a drag from his third cigarette. And he’s skinny, so skinny, with legs for days that taper into long feet, one of which dangles toward her bouncing slightly.
He is everything she is not; pristine and untouchable, like a sculpture. Impervious.
Still, she thinks, he is beautiful if you go for that sort of ethereal, inhuman thing. John always had done.
“You’re the only one who can, Mr Holmes,” she replies keeping her voice as calm and direct as his. “Plus, I’m told you enjoy a challenge.” His angled eyes rake over her from under dark eyelashes. She tries not to flinch choosing instead to brush her palms down her trousers as non-chalantly as possible. They might be sweating. Christ, I need a drink or several -- I know John, I know.
“I’m not sure with whom you’ve been speaking, Ms Watson,” he breathes, “ and though your attempt at flattery, albeit feeble, is usually advisable, I can assure you in this case that painting a portrait from nothing more than dated photographs will yield a disappointing result for all involved.” Smoke curls from his feminine mouth twisting elegantly towards the ceiling. “Good day. Mrs Hudson will show you out.”
In one swift move, he grinds out what’s left of his cigarette, stands and holds his hand out flat, his clean knobby fingers gesturing towards the exit. They look like they are made of the same wood as the handles of his brushes.
“I’m afraid I won’t take no for an answer,” Harry counters. Her shoulders square, pressing deeper into the worn fabric of the wingback chair. She feels safer there, stronger. “I find it interesting, Mr Holmes, that you’re so reluctant to try something new. Didn’t have you pegged as the unadventurous type. And it’s Harry, please.”
“Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, Ms Watson,” he says while thrusting the full weight of his attention into her. She leans into it stone-faced and tightened her lips. John would have laughed at her like he always did when she was defiant. Always, always, John always laughed right before he picked her up and literally threw her in whichever direction he deemed fit.
“My brother was perfect. Is perfect. Was perfect,” she corrects herself. “And I know you probably hear things like that a lot, but in this case, it’s the truth. He protected his patients when he was here. He protected his team when he was there. He protected me. And not just when he was in the stupid uniforms, but that was the thing about John -- he didn’t need a uniform. He was born to be a soldier. And he was born to be a doctor. He was friendly and warm and smart and safe. You felt like you had a secret lion next to you when he was with you. He wasn’t aggressive, but come after something he loved? He’d tear your fucking arm off without a thought.” She clears her throat. He watches her. He's listening. John, I’m trying. I’m trying.
“And he always forgave me. And he shouldn’t have. And he shouldn’t have gone the way he did. People need to know, Mr Holmes. They need to know my brother and what he did and how he did it and there’s no other way to tell them than through you. I can’t go to Moriarty or Moran or any of the others. You were his favourite, so I can’t even threaten to go to them. I can’t write it and there aren’t enough songs, so it’s got to be this. You. And John deserves it. He deserves everything. So please, reconsider. Please. I owe it to him. I owe it to John and I can’t get it done without you.”
A sniffle rings out from behind her chair. Harry snaps her head to the side to see Mrs Hudson, the paper-skinned assistant that had led her to Unit B of 221 Baker Street, dabbing at her eyes and failing to compose herself on the landing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says throwing her hands up and turning back toward the stairs.
The diamond gaze of Sherlock Holmes shifts minutely and then swishes back to Harry. He surveys her with neutral exactitude that feels like scalpels. Harry opens her mouth, a new plea forming on her tongue.
“He was older than you but not by much,” he cuts her off. “No more than two years apart, more likely eighteen months, more likely fourteen months. You had the same exact parentage?” He looms over her now, his fingers tent in front of his lips just beneath his nose. She can feel him in the roots of her hair.
She nods slowly. Her breath is as shallow as his is deep. His eyes seem wider. “Come back tomorrow,” he says. “Mrs Hudson will arrange the time,” he turns away, pulling a phone from the inner-pocket of his blazer, “and the payment.”
“So you’ll do it?” Harry doesn’t smile and Holmes doesn’t turn. His thumbs slide across the bright screen.
“Come back tomorrow.”
Before she can respond or get another look into his eyes (just to make sure he’s serious because her speech had actually worked, what the fuck?), Mrs Hudson appears at her elbow to tow her toward the door. Harry watches him move to the tall sitting room window. London’s weak sunlight hollows his features even further. He looks, extraordinarily, more human this way than he looked during their entire encounter. He pockets the phone again only to materialise another cigarette like a magician. His face never budges from the window.
“Come along, dear,” Mrs Hudson says in her sweet, motherly voice. They descend the stairs slowly, the creaks their feet arouse from the wood singing harmony. “Now, Sherlock isn’t exactly what you’d call a morning person, so what time do you suggest?”
Reservation at our usual.
Don’t ask questions.
# # # #
“I find it so spectacular that she accused you of being unadventurous!” Victor laughs his words into the hairline above Sherlock’s left ear.
The hallway is clear; Mrs Hudson knows the routine by now and stays away. Victor crowds him against the wall of the stairwell, rum and hot breath and his usual tang all assaulting Sherlock’s senses like a swarm of particularly well-meaning gnats.
His hands snake beneath Sherlock’s blazer and Sherlock growls against his neck. In these moments, Sherlock prays to a god he knows isn’t there for three more inches -- just three -- then he could overtake this man like he wants to, like he’s tried to since uni, choke him on adrenaline and arousal, short-circuit and overwhelm him for fucking once.
“Really, Sherlock? You?” Victor’s lips brush the shell of his ear now, blood pounding through it to meet them. Sharply, Sherlock pulls away and balls his fists into Victor’s waistcoat.
“Stop talking.” He smashes their lips together, Victor’s stubble scratching at his pores in the way he loves most. Victor’s lips are better when they’re silent. Always were. He knows too much, this chap. But he kisses like Sherlock is made of sweet cream or beurre blanc or like all the oxygen in the universe is stored only in the folds of Sherlock’s lungs.
Sherlock shoves his knee against his groin ripping an inelegant groan from Victor’s throat. Victor’s hips thrust with their breath, his cock dragging against Sherlock’s slender thigh. Hands slide over silk around Sherlock’s ribcage, squeezing him closer oh god oh yes that’s it oh god I want oh god I want to but I can’t no but I want no I want your shoulder bite it no your left shoulder yes right there right there I want to I want to I have to I have to it’s imperative
“Ouch!” Victor wrenches his mouth away. “What the fuck?”
Sherlock opens his eyes to find his thumb gouging a hole into the front of Victor’s shoulder while his other fingers grip the top of it just as tightly. When he releases his hand, it throbs. He holds it still, fingers fanned out in the air, colour returning to the knuckles. Victor’s eyebrows descend, waiting. “I...” Sherlock tries. “I honestly don’t know. I...”
Victor rubs at his shoulder with his opposite hand and scoffs “Is it unlocked?” He smiles ruefully, mouth full of lovely little teeth, and heads up the stairs unbuttoning his shirt as he climbs.
Victor makes Sherlock’s bed feel smaller than it is with his thoroughbred legs and endless arms. But when Victor’s hands land on Sherlock’s waist to hold him in place in his lap, Sherlock finally allows his mind to start shrinking their bodies back to human-size, to this divine equation of flesh on flesh.
He strokes Victor’s face, fingertips playing along his jaw bone on either side. Victor’s skin still feels like it did when they were twenty, smooth and even despite the abuse of cigarettes and London life.
“How do you want it?” Victor asks slowly. His eyes are so blue, light blue today sometimes they’re greener but oh no, they’re light light blue that’s easy enough to create better than life given the right tools start wide pupils down fathoms down 755 noir d’ivorie ebony black with 116 blanc de titane, titanium white not too much not too much better, better they’re shining read the light source and out into iris he wants it the iris 365 bleu clair he wants me just look one one six titanium white titanium white titanium white titanium white his pulse titanium white blanc blanc blank
“Shhhh,” says Victor petting a hand down Sherlock’s flank and uncapping the lube. Anticipation roils through Sherlock’s body at the sound. “How about just like this?” He rises up a bit keeping Sherlock balanced, his torso rippling with effort. He is beautiful. Sherlock closes his eyes. “It’s been a while since I’ve watched your face.” Sherlock wraps his arms around his shoulders and buries his face in his long neck, his lips against the jugular. He exhales shaking as Victor’s slick finger brushes his entrance.
It’s a tease at first. It usually is with Victor. Sherlock hitches forward, forcing the finger inside, just inside, and throws his head back with a deep groan. “Come on,” he urges. “I can’t, I can’t, you know I can’t --”
“You can and you will,” Victor commands. “Relax and let me--,” he kisses Sherlock’s chest, “-- let me--,” another, “take care of you.” His tongue burns along Sherlock’s clavicle and dips into the hollow of his throat. Heat pulses through him and escapes in the drop of precum that slides down his cock. Sherlock can only moan again. Victor adds another finger.
Glancing down, Sherlock watches Victor’s forearm contract and twist, contract and twist and contract. It’s slow and so very thorough, damn him. His longest finger finally brushes against his prostate and 574 jaune primaire streaks and streaks and jaune primaire 535 to jaune cadmium citron oh god oh godohgodohgoodgod
Sherlock’s vision goes jagged around the edges like torn paper. His hips sway with Victor’s hand and he rests his wet forehead against Victor’s left shoulder. His lips meet it reverently, soothingly. Victor hisses beneath him when Sherlock sets his teeth against the join of shoulder and arm, but he doesn’t say no. Instead, Victor’s left hand reaches through sweaty thighs and seizes Sherlock’s cock with just enough pressure to get his attention. With the stretch of his hole to three fingers now and the new onslaught on his cock, Sherlock rides the sensations and can’t contain his voice. “Oh fuck, oh fuck.” oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck
“Thought you’d never ask,” Victor rumbles into his ear and slicks his own cock and pushes home with little resistance. Sherlock’s hips go wide and his legs gelatinous as Victor picks up speed his hands gripping Sherlock’s thighs hard and sure. He’s not gentle and it’s sensational, Sherlock gorging himself on the drag and the heat.
Sherlock circles his hips, experimenting, his body recalling exactly what to do when faced with its familiar albeit infrequent associate. Victor cries out.
“Oh fuck you, you remember, don’t you? Of course you do, you perfect fuck, oh ffffffffffuck.”
Sherlock moves, the perfect counterpoint to Victor’s ever-shallower thrusts as sensation zaps his strength. He clenches him from the inside out and laces his hands behind Victor’s head. Victor fucks up into him a little harder and tweaks one nipple while kissing the other. Sherlock arches his back, bending into it.
Their similar curls, his a little lighter than Sherlock’s and much less soft, are frizzing wildly with the addition of sweat and fingertips. Bouncing higher, slapping harder, Sherlock rides him heels down heels down heels motherfucking down Sherlock I’ve told you until he have to can’t have to oh god yes have to flings backwards bringing Victor with him flat against his chest forcing the head of his cock to nudge against his prostate just so.
Victor doesn’t falter; his hips keep pumping but when he tries to rise up, Sherlock holds him close, hands splayed flat across his shoulder blades. He keens and keens with a broken baritone and Victor takes the hint to stay put. Victor tucks his head further into Sherlock’s neck, his hot breath against his skin cooling the sweat and making more at the same time.
Finally, Victor squirms a hand between their bodies and strokes Sherlock’s cock. His hand slips easily up and down, tighter and loser, over the head, thumb against the slit, once more, twice more, 140 blanc necré iridescent white blank canvas blank blank nothing nothing one one six blanc de titane titanium white even whiter oh fuck oh god... Distantly, as if he’s not really there, Sherlock feels the tell-tale tightening inside him shiver and shock into explosion.
“Oh god oh Sherlock!” Victor calls from very far away.
Afterwards, Victor steals a drag from his cigarette as he sits on the bed trousers already replaced and refastened. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but fuck it. I’m post-coital and curious,” he says on an inhale. Sherlock can still taste the smoke from his first drag burning in the back of his throat. He watches Victor’s long fingers balance the delicate cigarette remembering down to his atoms just how strong they really are, and raises an eyebrow from his supine position against his pillows. It’s enough to urge Victor onwards.
“What the fuck were you doing with my shoulder? I think, yeah, there’s going to be a bruise on the front and holy fuck,” he twists to look over his left shoulder, “Am I bleeding?”
“Only a little,” Sherlock replies suddenly bored. “You’ve had worse.” He reaches for Victor’s cigarette, but Victor turns away with it snug between his swollen lips, eyes all blue ice when he rolls them towards the ceiling. He slides on his shirt and stands. Thieving bastard.
“So, that’s it? No answer? Just a new thing you wanted to try? Christ, you and your experiments.” Victor groans and pops the final button through his cotton shirt, his waistcoat hanging open. Sherlock blinks at him. Victor stops and looks at him, smoke swirling up past his angular nose, his flushed cheeks, his drying hair.
“Vee, do you really think I can do this?” Sherlock asks solemnly, seriously. It’s Victor’s turn to blink. Sherlock looks away, lighting a fresh cigarette from the case on his nightstand. Victor sucks the last of the nicotine from his stolen smoke and grinds it out in an ashtray on the dresser. Picking it up, he moves to set it on the nightstand for Sherlock. He leans in very close, almost looming over the (very slightly) younger man. Sherlock draws in a breath. Victor smells like smoke and sex and the dry cleaner’s in Islington he won’t stop patronising no matter how many buttons they break. Such silly attachments this man makes.
“They have yet to invent something you cannot do, Sherlock Holmes,” he says simply, accenting it with an appraising, parental kiss to the middle of Sherlock’s knitted brow.
“I may need you for --”
“Just modelling. I can’t do this all the time,” he retorts. “She might start to notice if I come in smelling like semen-soaked commonwealth too often.”
“I’m not the commonwealth. And I doubt Her Majesty is want for agents willing to do her bidding.”
“You’d be surprised,” Victor says heading for the door. “Where the hell’s my --?” his fingers tap across his collarbone. It protrudes a bit and Sherlock loves the way it plays with the light. Always has.
“Banister,” Sherlock says in a gust of fresh smoke.
“Ah. Well then. Call if, oh fuck, you’re going to do what you want no matter what I say, aren’t you? I’ll see you, Sherlock.” He leaves the bedroom and pounds down the steps, slowing only to collect his scarf from the railings.
Then he’s gone and Sherlock can’t shake the feeling that he’s just betrayed something.
Mycroft twirls the handle of his weekday umbrella under his wide palm while the divot in the rug gets deeper. The phrase “ceaselessly frustrating” comes to mind constantly when he surveys his little brother. “Disappointing on a molecular level,” also appears for there the genius sits, cross-legged in the floor, surrounded by piles of paper none of which are sketches. Or even scribbles that could turn into sketches. Just notes and notes and endless infuriating notes. And Mycroft had so been enjoying his new chaise lounge.
“Why don’t you get them yourself?” He sniffs the air. “Agent Trevor was here just last night. I assumed that by now, your relationship had merited certain favours,” Mycroft doesn’t have to sneer so he doesn’t. He’s simply stating facts. Sherlock’s ears burn and his shoulders bunch then expand when he sits straighter, pretending not to care.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, which I’m not, but isn’t it a manager’s job to actually manage the career responsible for all of their luxury up to and including their new ridiculously opulent and criminally ugly wristwatch? And my sincere apologies to your lonely chaise as well.”
He doesn’t ever look at Mycroft when he speaks this way. He just blasts his words into the air around Mycroft and continues on his imperious way. It would be almost endearing if it weren’t so fucking annoying. These petty little games.
“I’m sure your new client, this Harriet Watson, can provide you with all you require,” Mycroft purrs and seats himself at the dining table that hasn’t seen a proper meal in weeks. He thumbs open a file folder full of pictures. “Ah, so she has. Here we are.”
“Don’t!” his brother bellows from his nest on the floor. His eyes go wide and then slam shut, little wrinkles fanning out across his eyelids. His hands clench against his thighs. He bows his head. “You’ll ruin everything!”
Mycroft rests his hand on the file keeping it closed. He crosses his legs and waits. His every atom begs for explanation, so he doesn’t need to say it. The air is charged with it. Mycroft waits some more: adjusts his tie, his waistcoat, their father’s Signet ring. Sherlock turns his face away and speaks to the bookcase when he finally does.
“That’s the entire point, Mycroft,” he says low and slow.
He turns around. His face has that light it only emits when he’s working, firing on every available cylinder. It’s powerfully alive. Mycroft recognises it immediately.
“Perception is reality. I will interview people who knew Captain Watson and paint what they saw in him. As they saw him. Accurately. Perfectly. Every hair follicle and scar. And I will do it without looking at one single photograph of him. An exhibition built entirely on how humans see other humans.” Sherlock does not blink. “Do you see?”
Mycroft exhales, inhales. “You know I believe in you and in your talents. However, dear brother, we need this to work, Sherlock. We cannot afford a relapse --”
“I know, Mycroft.”
“Then did you also know that Moriarty and Moran are joining efforts?” Sherlock stares at him. “Their September show is, oh allow me to directly quote them,” Mycroft retrieves his phone from his inner pocket. He takes his time, thumbs slowly knowing the tension will eventually drive Sherlock round the twist, but it’s a move guaranteed to grant him Sherlock’s full attention. He reads:
...and, in celebration of our new partnership, we present our first joint show, “Suicide of Fake Genius,” an eclectic multimedia exhibition about the frailty of supposed genius in the modern art world and in London specifically. Things – oil paintings and the painters who paint them especially – are not always as they seem.
Sherlock’s jaw clenches.
“Are you sure you wish to proceed with your proposal? Such a cerebral enterprise. Would your energy not be better spent accepting one of the fellowship or Artist In Residence positions? In America perhaps? Distance. Time to recuperate. Fewer distractions.” Mycroft suggests gently.
He’s not sure he has the energy to drag Sherlock from any more gutters when the work is through with him and he’s failed. He knows he doesn’t have it within him to lock Sherlock in another rehabilitation facility. Sherlock had been so pale curled around himself in a hospital gown; he looked like he’d been cast in sickly greyscale while the world around him was in high-definition. It was as close to death (both physical and creative) as Mycroft had ever seen him.
He will not endure it again.
“I’m not a toddler,” Sherlock snaps. “Nor am I in need of suggestions especially from you. I’m doing this, Mycroft.”
“And Ms Watson is aware of your plan?” He slides his index finger along the wooden handle of his umbrella, digging the nail in slightly on the upstroke. It keeps his hands busy while he is emphatically not choking Sherlock to the ground.
“Of course not,” Sherlock scoffs and returns his attention to his notes. “Selling is your department, big brother.”
“Then make sure I have something to sell, little brother,” replies Mycroft rising and buttoning his jacket over his waistcoat. He picks up the file containing the pictures and slides it into his briefcase. No need to tell Sherlock; Sherlock hears him do it anyway.
“The first interview is in an hour. Get out.”
“I want sketches by Thursday.”
No response. Just the soft caesura of shifting paper over paper.
“Until then.” Mycroft gathers his case and his umbrella and shows himself out.
Subject: S. Holmes Exhibition 2014
The new show is as yet untitled but will be extraordinary.
Sherlock will be painting a single subject not from life or pictures but from information gathered through interviews only: art in its purest form -- human perception.
We look forward to continuing our relationship with your gallery.
Subject: Re: S. Holmes Exhibition 2014
Sounds exciting, boys!
However, we have a few requirements. Sherlock will be filmed during some of the interviews and his painting process. We can edit the video into a piece that plays at the beginning of the exhibit. If we don’t, we could have a potentially volatile public on our hands crying for proof. We cannot tolerate another incident.
We’ll be in touch.
Subject: Re: Re: S. Holmes Exhibition 2014
“Describe his head,” Sherlock exhales in a swirl of smoke. His interviewee cocks his own pudgy cranium and smiles broadly even though he’s using one of his fleshy mitts to wave the smoke away from his face. If only Sherlock couldn’t tell the exact moments in which he was misunderstood, but alas. He takes another long drag.
“His eyes were dark --?”
“His head, Dr. Stamford. Not his face. His head. Skull shape, size, density, any osteopathic anomaly, et cetera. ” Honestly. A medical man.
“Oh,” A long pause. Sherlock fights to blink without rolling his eyes.
To describe the previous interviews as wearisome would be too kind. Harriet Watson had spent the entire time expelling alcohol-fuelled demons as though Sherlock were leading her recovery group thereby invalidating almost the entirety of her interview. Guilt and rose-coloured memories: an inoperative combination.
At least she is a full blood-relative. That’s something he can fucking use.
“If it’s easier,” Sherlock continues, “describe him as you did in your autopsy report. Your vernacular will not intimidate me.” This merits a nod from Doctor Michael Stamford and his shoulders sag beneath his coat. He closes his eyes without being prompted. An infinitesimal step in the right direction.
“John was smaller than average, so his head was a bit small for the average male, but round, no obvious protrusions or anomalies. Lower mandible intact, square, and visible in profile. Zygomatic more pronounced the thinner he got especially directly after a tour. Eyes evenly spaced but deep-set. No dental anomalies. His ears stuck out a bit at the top. His lips were thin. He had a cleft in his chin.”
Round skull rounder Northern descent Scottish rounder like hers, like Harriet, not oval circle circle perfect circle then square deep eyes big eyes deep set evenly spaced, even he said, square jaw strong strong and small man’s man military man square jaw smooth cleft chin? cleft chin bone structure good teeth think! fit it together think smooth and even even eyes round, compact --
“Keep going,” Sherlock’s hand flying over the sketchpad drawing and tracing and retracing. “The rest of his body?”
Neck slender and strong tendons think thick brows frame the face round face round with angles too pointy smooth smooth military doctor authoritative no smile why would he smile? it’s a warzone determined square jaw smaller than average average British male one point seven five four metres smaller stronger what about his nose? based on bone structure the nose is here and perfect perfect rounder use your wrist rounder Captain John Hamish Watson medical doctor and soldier in the sun
He’s stopped speaking. When did he stop? Sherlock slows his hand smearing the graphite a little.
“You realise he was embalmed by the time I saw him?” the doctor asks solemnly. Sherlock inhales.
“I also know you referred to him as ‘John’ and are therefore more than just a coroner. In fact, you’re not a coroner at all, Dr Stamford. In fact, going by the state of the lapels of your lab coat and your shoes, you are an anatomy professor and part-time general practitioner. In fact, you volunteered for this particular case though it was assigned to a different medical examiner and that’s not all. Your pulse has increased as have your respirations and sweat has started to gather in your hairline indicating an emotional response consistent with trauma or grief. A standard M.E. -- or standard physician come to that -- would hardly have such a visceral reaction towards a perfectly normal every-day cadaver with all its features and extremities intact even if the deceased in question was a fallen soldier in Her Majesty’s Army. Inference: you knew John Watson before he died, more than likely before he joined the Army, more than likely while you were both students at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Ah, yes, you were. You were study partners, perhaps even flatmates. It doesn’t really matter now other than the indisputable fact that John Watson was your friend. Now, tell me about his nose.”
The man’s small eyes swim behind his glasses as Sherlock speaks. How droll.
Why do people cry?
# # # #
Five sketches. Seventeen droning interviews (one of which was videotaped for god’s sake) for five (five!) stupid fucking sketches.
Granted, they are Sherlock Holmes sketches, which makes them head and shoulders (and torso and legs) above most and so perhaps the day is not entirely wasted. Stabbing out the last cigarette of the pack into a saucer, Sherlock scrubs his hands over his face. There is only one solution and it is simple. And at the very least, it’s not America.
One: acquire enough cocaine to fell a herd of elephants -- African elephants. Two: text Mycroft that it’s all over, this impossible project was utterly fucked from the start (he’ll love that), and he was right (he’ll love that too as Mycroft loves nothing more than brazen admittance of his superiority). Three: snort rail after delicious white rail until he can’t feel his face (just like the glory days) and chase it with a nice smooth injection until goodnight, Vienna.
Sherlock twirls his phone between his index finger and his thumb wondering if he has a needle long enough to hit the superior vena cava. A direct injection to the heart seems fitting. Though by that point, he’ll be so blissed out, he will almost certainly just aim for whatever vein he can successfully hit. But still, an empty hypodermic sticking straight out of his chest would make such a marvellous final tableau. Oh, it would. Like a fourteenth century Flemish painting. Like a murder scene. Sherlock rubs his shoulder.
“Hoo hoo!” and its accompanying knock on the doorframe just inside the kitchen, Mrs Hudson calls to him. “Are you decent?”
He tilts his head on the armrest of the couch to look at her. The purple dress hugs her just right and she looks lovely as usual. Maybe even lovelier. He frowns. Given that Sherlock was not given to outward declarations of fondness, he hadn’t thought of it before: he shall miss Martha Hudson. Edit plan. Two: text Mycroft etcetera, include proviso for Mrs Hudson’s continued monetary wellbeing, end edit. It’s the one thing he can do for her after all she does -- tries to do for him. He stares at the ceiling.
“Your brother will be here this afternoon,” she tuts at him as she tap-tap-taps toward him on her low-rise heels straightening the never-ending piles of paper as she goes. “You’ll want to be dressed, surely.”
“I don’t give a fuck,” he says clicking the consonant much more harshly than good diction entails, “what Mycroft thinks. Least of all about my clothing.”
“That’s a lie, Sherlock Holmes, and you know it. Family is all we have in the end. You always feel better when you face him dressed properly,” she pats him twice on the head with her wrinkled little hand. “I’ve got scones in the oven. Up with you.” Her overwhelmingly floral perfume assaults him as she continues shuffling about, half dusting the flat and half touching everything at least once.
Sherlock narrows his eyes. Settling deeper into the couch, the dip of his lower back pushed deeper into the cushions, he rumbles out a long sigh. He swipes his thumb across his phone screen. The brightness makes him squint harder.
# # # #
Your presence is required.
21:00. Baker St.
Your number is in my phone.
The initials are unnecessary.
One last hurrah.
SH SH SH
don’t be so morbid.
Not morbid. Imminent.
Take a shower.
You’ll feel better.
# # # #
Sherlock pitches his phone end over end into the middle of the sitting room. It makes a very disappointing noise as it lands against the carpet solid and relatively unscathed. Still, it is a few metres away from him now and the disconnect, however illusory, feels nice.
Sherlock brings his knees up to his chest, tucking his chin into them and situating his blue silk robe around himself like folded wings. It’s cold in here. Perhaps he has a virus or maybe even a proper disease. One thing is definitely certain: Sherlock is not well. His shoulder aches for no reason. His knee inexplicably twitches and his hands are shaking intermittently, just enough to be annoying. None of it makes any sense.
So this must be it then: the beginning of the end. Sherlock is quite literally falling apart at long last. What does it matter anyway? The talent or skill -- whichever it is -- has abandoned him like a Victorian street urchin. He can barely draw something resembling a humanoid let alone paint a fucking full-body portrait. He hasn’t mixed pigment in weeks, not stretched one canvas, and his pride will not allow him to risk a glance, one harmless secret glance at a picture of his subject.
He has finally found The Thing That Will Break Him, he knows as well as he knows anything. And shockingly (sadly), it’s not an illicit drug. The exhibition of Captain John H. Watson, Medical Officer of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers is Sherlock Holmes’ final problem.
The bones of his chin and his kneecaps grind harder together while he thinks in circles. It’s a pleasant distraction, peaceful, like wandering a labyrinth and forgetting that the Minotaur lurks somewhere close by.
“Amazing!” he hears sometime later with half an ear. An astonished “fantastic!” comes a few beats later.
Sherlock’s eyes open at that.
The statements hold no notes of sarcasm or derision, so it’s definitely not Mycroft or even Victor so just who in hell has Mrs Hudson let in now? Another fucking interview?
Sherlock sits up, his blood pumping quickly as his body swims in adrenaline. His breath steady, he stands and is up and over the coffee table headed towards the invasion.
A small man with perfect posture is leaning over his untidy table studying Sherlock’s new sketches with great intensity. He has stopped on the one of John Watson’s face in profile, the one that’s stark and almost featureless with nothing but outer bone structure and no completely defined features. It’s hardly a face at all, really. His fingers trace Sherlock’s pen strokes and a smile crawls up one side of his mouth. “Quite extraordinary.”
“Do you know you do that out loud?” ventures Sherlock, the words finding him and merely spilling out.
“Sorry, I’ll stop.” But he doesn’t, doesn’t turn or even move his hand from its business of tracing the shapes on the page.
“No, it’s...” Sherlock stammers and straightens his robe, tying the sash in a tight knot against his hip. “It’s just not what people normally say.”
“What do people normally say?” And now he turns. Bleu, 308 bleu indigo? No, 318 bleu de Prusse, Prussian blue, three one eight blue so dark it looks brown but it’s blue deep deep Prussian blue first invented in 1706, nontoxic though prepared with cyanide salts and almost totally insoluble, with a cubic lattice molecular structure that makes it impossible to express accurately on computer screens or in photographs, read the light, from above and the side, look how blue, used in histopatholigical studies to detect the over-presence of iron in biopsy specimens, midnight blue the anti-dawn, so blue it’s almost black, but oh no, it’s blue -- John Watson’s eyes are blue.
Sherlock blinks. John H. Watson, soldier and physician, beloved brother and trusted friend, smiles broadly at him, waiting. Sherlock clears his throat and inches closer.
“Normally, my subjects are rather mute on the merits of my preliminary work,” he says carefully. “Especially when they are deceased.”
John keeps smiling. “Ah,” he sniffs, “Well.” He turns back to the drawings.
Sherlock has no response. He can’t move or speak, really. Or remember taking anything that would cause this strong of a reaction. The cigarettes are the same blend as they’ve always been and his stash remains unmolested. So, logically, this isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
There is a dead soldier standing in his flat looking back and forth through his unremarkable sketches. Touching them. And he is indeed smaller than average, but dense. Solid. Are ghosts usually solid?
“How are you here?” he asks in a low whisper. The flat is so quiet.
“Does it matter?” John shrugs. Then his shoulders straighten back into military rigidity. “All the same, it’s an honour to meet you, Mr Holmes.” He shoves his hand towards Sherlock and Sherlock takes it, feeling the rough and smooth of John’s hand against his.
Sherlock’s hands are bigger and his fingers reach much farther than John’s compact ones. But texture and size do not account for the jolt that travels through him when his eyes go from their clasped hands back to John’s face. It makes his hair stand on end and crackle. It’s a shock. Like inspiration. Like surprise.
“Sherlock, please,” he manages. John nods with a slight blush. 250 ocre de chair perfect on his cheeks and the tops of his ears across his nose, two five oh his round perfect nose, blend blend blend with 208 terre de sinne naturelle blend 208 into 250 darker, down his neck, on the tops of his hands, direct prolonged sunlight burnt and tanned over and over again, tan but not above the wrists, Afghanistan, he’s been there, but his lips are ocre de chair it’s ideal and if his lips are that colour than that means his -- Sherlock lets go.
“You’re staring,” says John with a slight laugh and walks past Sherlock brushing against the blue silk on his elbow as he goes. “This is a prime spot. Must be expensive.” John gestures with his shoulder.
Sherlock narrows his eyes. There is a little bistro table with a dripping candle in its middle sitting before a large bay window where the wall of his flat should be. The night makes the candle all the brighter, the flame licking out at him like an overly excited puppy. Sherlock follows and runs his hands down the front of his blazer, his white shirt cuffs just visible. This suit jacket always rides up. He inhales.
Garlic, wine, wax, fire, smoke. Angelo’s.
Sherlock makes his way slowly to the empty chair across from John, a disquieting feeling not altogether unlike fear sweeps its way through his gut. Then he looks up and there sits John, eyes bright and two fingers pressed against his bottom lip. He has removed the black coat with the shoulders like body armour to reveal a plain oatmeal jumper. It makes his skin look darker and his hair look blonder, and something inside Sherlock relaxes weaving through him in a gentle current.
“You’re hungry?” Sherlock inquires unbuttoning his own jacket and sitting down. He runs his fingers along the tablecloth, making sure it’s real. The fabric hums against his thumbnail.
“Starving and you hadn’t anything in,” John replies jovially. His eyebrows twitch as he peruses the menu, his pupils going wider and obscuring some of the blue. His face is weathered, lived in, and expressive to the extreme. Whether or not he knows this about himself is another matter. The tiniest hints of emotions seem to trigger movements that push and pull his skin into fascinating, complicated shapes. For example, his brow creases and his lips thin when he smiles at Sherlock like he’s waiting for an answer. Oh.
“What’s good here, I’ve never been, I said. Northumberland is a bit off my usual route.”
“I usually just eat whatever Angelo sets in front of me.” John laughs. It’s startling.
“Feeds you up, does he? That’s nice of him.” John puts down his menu and takes a sip of red wine with another smile. His smiles. They’re so natural. So easy. Sherlock watches, fighting hard to keep the confusion from peeking through.
“He’s a...--, he owes me. He required an elaborate gift in order to stave off an impending divorce. I obliged.”
“Extraordinary! And your painting saved his marriage?”
“No, they’ve divorced. But he got a huge payout for an original Holmes in the settlement.”
“Shame,” John frowns, deep grooves appearing where there weren’t any before. His whole face seems to sag.
“Why? You’ve not even met Angelo.”
“It’s always a shame when relationships end.” The full stop is audible as John takes a bite of fettuccine in béchamel, his meal mostly gone. He twirls his fork against his spoon and looks at Sherlock, cocking an eyebrow. “So what’s all this about, then? Why me?” The last of the pasta is shoved into his mouth and he chews slowly.
“Your sister hired me. You’re a job,” says Sherlock evenly. It rolls off his tongue so simply, but it tastes funny. He takes a sip of his own glass of red to get rid of it.
“No, I know your work. You don’t waste your time with jobs,” John counters. “So what am I?” He crosses his arms and blinks. He expects so much, this determined army doctor with his stern mouth and kind eyes.
“An overly elaborate way to eviscerate my arch enemy and his new partner. Creatively speaking.”
John shakes his head, the strands of his hair picking up the candlelight and tossing it around.028 or, gold, gold the perfect start but watch read the light watch are you watching? it starts or but look deeper 412 brun sennelier four one two brown underneath deep underneath but lighter lighter when it reaches towards the sunlight towards the light, look at it in the moonlight though, darken the or, lightly lightly darken, add streaks, 029 argent streaks but not overt, just silver silver streaks near his ears at the temples, he’s older but not old but he could cover them but doesn’t, the silver hairs watch them blend blend hide them in plain sight he’s not even trying to hide them, look look fucking look watch him watch him
“People don’t have arch enemies in real life. Doesn’t happen.”
Sherlock sighs, wishing for a cigarette. “Clearly you’ve not met James Moriarty either.”
Sherlock leans over the table a bit more. The heat from the candle caresses his raised eyebrows and he can smell John across from him. “What do real people have then? In their real lives?”
John shrugs again and leans back in his chair. “Friends. Family. People they like, people they don’t like.”
“Well,” Sherlock looks down at John’s empty plate. When he looks up once more ready to continue the conversation, John sits on a stool between the open windows. From the sun, it’s nearly dawn and a good one too. He’s glowing like an angel if they existed and if they did, they’d all look like him, read the light, 605 rouge cadmium clair red just behind his ears, it’s lighting up the blood, the capillaries are open and flowing and radiant 505 jaune de mars blend behind him sky clouds sky they’re striped behind him, 116 blanc de titane, the clouds are transparent 03 médium transparent but they’re there it’s London isn’t it, it’s early, he’s used to it, look how open his eyes are, wide wide open, his face is, he’s used to it these hours once he’s awake he’s awake, look at him looking at you, 605 into 505 and oh two eight it’s or, gold he’s gold he glows gold at dawn
Sherlock recrosses his legs where he sits in his grey leather chair. He clears his throat forcing his voice back into use. “I hate jumpers. They’re like good haircuts on poorly bred poodles. They mask what’s really important.”
“So now I’m a dog?”
“I didn’t say --”
“You want I should take it off?” John cuts in. Sherlock’s breathing stutters a little. He covers it with a quiet cough. John does not break eye contact.
“Yes,” Sherlock says finally.
“Random shirtless man in your flat? Won’t your girlfriend mind?” John’s lips curl into a not-quite-smile, more a baring of teeth. Interesting and, surely he’s not that obvious. John looks at the knot in the floor just in front of Sherlock’s toe and no further.
“Girlfriends. Not really my area.”
“Your…-- boyfriend, then?” stammers John catching Sherlock’s eyes again. “Which is fine, by the way.”
“I know it’s fine.” Sherlock’s heart beats faster, louder, like the beginning of a high but harder, more adamant. It’s not arrhythmia. Yet.
“So you’ve not got a boyfriend?”
“No.” This is starting to hurt his chest. Sherlock feels his ribs struggle against the fist-sized muscle, struggle to contain it when it apparently wants nothing more than to escape his body and live forever over there in John Watson’s front pocket. It’s worse when John grins. Then John grins and this is the worst it’s ever been.
“You’re unattached. Like me.”
This is silly.
This is impossible.
This is sleep deprivation.
This is food poisoning.
This is chemical reactions.
This is not real.
This is, this is, this -- is --
“John,” Sherlock says low and as calmly as possible, “while I’m flattered by your interest, of course you realise that as a professional artist with rather a pronounced history, the human form holds no more interest to me than how it all fits together so that I may recreate it on canvas? You are a conundrum of carbon and water. Nothing more.”
John holds his hands up. “No, no. I wasn’t...” he stops himself, chuckles softly. His eyes crinkle at the edges, years of sun damage and happiness there. “Maybe I was, I don’t know. I --, I wanted you to know that it’s fine. I’m not afraid of you.”
Sherlock turns quickly and picks up his sketch pad. His favourite pencil slides in the sweat on his palm. When he turns back, John stands, arms splayed sideways like Leonardo’s man, confidently nude with eyes raging into his own. He doesn’t hide a thing. Sherlock’s head swims.
“Don’t stare,” says Sherlock.
“You’re staring,” John points out. The largest organ in the body, from the Latin cutis referring to both the dermis and epidermis, temperature and water retention regulation, and sensation, touch, it stretches it folds it protects it restricts and it opens and it closes look at that Jesus fucking Christ, that scar, that scar, obvious ballistic trauma, so smooth and angry, granulation tissue now, it’s still a little pink it’s still healing but that’s as good as it gets, but does he feel it? can he feel it? does it hurt when it rains? I can feel it, his shoulder, his clavicle, his scapula all re-calcified, his tight new skin, it’s brand new--I feel it.
“I’m working. We can’t both of us stare.”
“Why not? I’m just carbon and water.”
# # # #
Sherlock starts awake and reflexively hugs himself tighter. His torso aches with it. He sits up silently fingers still flush against his ribs, holding himself together. The flat echoes it back to him: nothing and no-one.
His phone still lies on the rug where it landed. His messy table is just where it had been, windows in the right place, no candles, no pasta.
And the man with the dark blue eyes is gone.
Mrs Hudson’s senseless heels click against the stairs and Sherlock springs to standing, arms still crossed tight. She scowls when she sees him, her tea tray wobbling a bit when she sighs “Sherlock Holmes, I told you an hour ago to get dressed and now your brother is nearly here!” She sets down the tray and goes about tidying the kitchen. Again. “Honestly. Like talking at a brick wall.”
Sherlock concentrates and releases his muscles group by group as he slinks to his room to change. Into battle. He scratches through his hair, pushing it away from his face.
Sherlock closes his eyes reaching for a suit in his wardrobe, and abruptly there, is the correct and total image of Dr John Watson, RAMC, sitting in the foyer of his mind palace smiling back at him, his mysterious face filled in. He opens them again and something deep in his chest flutters, tickles him from the inside like knowing the truth of a secret all the way to your marrow.
And it’s there in his first floor bedroom, stepping into freshly laundered trousers, that suddenly Sherlock Holmes is saved.